Backcountry Sights

Photos and stories from the outdoors

Day Hikes on the Road to Hāna

One of the most famous attractions on Maui is “the road to Hāna,” a narrow, winding route along the north-eastern shore of the island. After spending a day hiking atop Haleakalā, a few friends and I set out to drive this famous highway, making a few stops along the way to do some day hiking and see roadside attractions.

hawaii maui sunset
I could get used to sunsets like this…

Trip Planning

Many tourists travel the road to Hāna as an out-and-back trip, driving from Kahalui to Hāna along the north-eastern coast. However, the road continues from Hāna across the southern coast before winding back northward to Kahalui. Rumors abound that the southern route requires four-wheel drive, that the road is full of massive holes, and that rental companies will fine you if they discover you’ve taken their vehicle there. My friends and I gave it a shot anyway and discovered that none of the rumors are true. The road is certainly narrow, winding, and bumpy, but nothing a Hyundai Elantra can’t handle, and not much different than other sections from the north-eastern side. Additionally, the southern route was the most beautiful section of the entire drive! Take a leap of faith and venture around the full loop; it’s worth seeing.

road to hana map
The road to Hana is a long, but beautiful drive.

Besides hiking, which I’ll get to in a moment, one of the most interesting features of the drive is the abundance of waterfalls. Some of the falls drop from high cliffs, while others splash over more modest ledges. I’ve been spoiled by the abundant epic cascades in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and didn’t find any of these waterfalls particularly awe-inspiring, but they do complement the tropical ecosystem well.

Driving the road to Hāna is an all-day affair, particularly if you stop to see the sights (which you totally should). Get an early morning start from Kahului and follow the signs toward Hāna. At first, the road makes a beeline through the dry, open fields on the western slopes of Haleakalā. A little farther east the ecology quickly changes to lush, green, misty forests. Soon, the road narrows and you begin crossing the first of many one-lane (“oh-nay lah-nay”, Collin jokes) bridges. Stay alert as you wind your way along the coast; there are ample opportunities for head-on collisions, which would surely ruin your tropical vacation.

Wai’ānapapa State Park

Jan. 18, 2019

One of the first stops we make along the road to Hāna is Wai’ānapapa State Park, home to black sand beaches and dramatic volcanic seascapes. We find a parking spot, tumble out of the car, and head for the ocean. A short walk delivers us to a black sand beach, a novelty for all of us! The “sand” is much coarser than your average beach; much of the shoreline is comprised of smooth, black pebbles that glisten in the sun and feel warm underfoot.

The trail that lead us from the parking lot to the beach continues along the coast for several miles. We pick our way through the volcanic rock, still wearing sandals, and admire several more small coves with black sand beaches. It’s a hike unlike any I’ve taken before. The colors are incredible; the sapphire-blue surf, the pitch black lava rock, and the brilliant-green plants that make their home among the rocks all contrast dramatically.

Before leaving the park, we wander over to a trail with a view of some “sea stacks,” rock formations that jut vertically out of the water. They look sharp and dangerous; the sea hasn’t smoothed them into sand yet. We don’t stay much longer; it’s lunch time and we’re all hungry, so we return to the highway and continue on to the city of Hāna.

wai'anapanapa state park sea stacks
The sea hasn’t eroded these volcanic rocks quite yet

Pīpīwai Trail

Jan 18, 2019 | 3.3 mi | +/- 1200 ft | View on Map

After eating some delicious fish from a food truck in Hāna, we continue down the Hāna Highway to Kīpahulu District of Haleakalā National Park. Due to the ongoing government shutdown, we’re not required to pay the park entrance fee and there are no other permit requirements. After parking, we locate the Pīpīwai trailhead and begin climbing uphill toward Haleakalā. The trail isn’t particularly steep, but the warm, humid air leaves me sweatier than I’m used to being in January.

pipiwai trail ohe'o gulch
Collin, Diane, and Brian pose at spot overlooking Ohe’o Gulch

We pass lots of other hikers on our way up the trail, passing through tall, waving grass, and then dense, dim forests. One of the highlights of the first half of the hike is a massive banyan tree, a collection of roots and branches without any sort of trunk. Seriously, every branch seems to grow its own roots, some dropping straight down to the ground far from the tree’s central spire.

Further up the trail, we cross a ravine full of deep pools and small cascades. On the opposite side of the ravine, we enter a bamboo forest. The bamboo stocks tower some 40 or 50 feet above the trail, blocking out most of the afternoon sunlight. I’ve never seen bamboo so tall, or so much of the stuff; our walk through the bamboo forest covers the better part of a mile!

At the end of the trail we reach Waimoku Falls, an enormously tall waterfall dropping from a notch in the cliff face. Despite the recent rainstorms, there is very little water flowing over the falls. An informational sign near the trail depicts the falls during a flash flood; it would be exciting to see that kind of power, but probably also moderately unsafe.

After admiring the falls for a few minutes, we return down the trail. On the way back, near a spot overlooking Ohe’o Gulch, we spot a brilliant double rainbow with supernumerary bands. Ever since I saw my first supernumerary rainbow in Humphrey’s Basin in the Sierra Nevada, I’ve been noticing them more often: once on the Sierra High Route, and now here! Between the four of us, there is much exclaiming and many pictures taken. It’s a great concluding highlight to the hike, which ends a short distance later at the trailhead parking lot.

pipiwai trail rainbow
A brilliant double rainbow stretches over Ohe’o Gulch

Rather than return to civilization the same way we arrived, we continue driving west along the Hāna Highway, winding along the southern coast of Maui. Sunset is less than an hour away, and the golden light bathing the island is nothing short of spectacular! During a particularly amazing portion of the drive, we weave along a narrow, pot-holed strip of pavement that hugs the edge of a cliff, perched precariously above the crashing waves. It’s perhaps one of the most beautiful spots I’ve seen on the island, but there’s nowhere to stop the car, so we admire on-the-go.

After navigating the sea-side cliffs, the road climbs further inland and we find ourselves cruising through grassy pastures, bumping over cattle guards every couple of miles. Everyone is anxious to find a spot to pull off the road and admire the scenery, but the narrow, twisting route offers few opportunities. We finally locate a safe spot to stop and pull off the road for a few minutes. As an added bonus, there’s a church nearby that is framed by yet another rainbow! In the background, the clouds surrounding Haleakalā turn pink, purple, and blue.

A little further down the road, we pull over again and watch the sun set. The rolling hills, golden grass, and distant sea make for an awesome evening vista. Once the sun has sunk below the horizon, we pile back into the car to complete the drive back to civilization, hot food, and refreshing drinks.

road to hana highway sunset
The Hāna Highway twists through the foothills of Haleakala, winding toward the sunset

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